“To the fire-stars” – On Gerard O’Daly’s Prudentius (Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 2012)

[Untitled], Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 88.4 (2012), 516–518. A review of Gerard O’Daly, Days Linked by Song: Prudentius’ Cathemerinon (Oxford 2012). An excerpt from the author’s typescript is copied below:

Carolingian manuscript of Prudentius’ morning hymn, Ad Galli cantum – Bayerische Staatsbibliothek

            When Prudentius receives attention, it is typically on account of his monumental poems, Psychomachia and Peristephanon—that is to say, as a Christian successor to the pagan epicist, Virgil. But Gerard O’Daly reports that Prudentius was shelved beside Horace, Rome’s foremost lyricist, towards the middle of the fifth century in “libraries in villas near Nîmes”, which suggests “a recognition of their affinity as writers”. In Days Linked by Song, O’Daly reintroduces this Horatian Prudentius, and invites us to revisit some of the most accomplished Christian lyric of late antiquity—Prudentius’ song-cycle, Cathemerinon.

            Days Linked by Song is the first en face English translation of the Cathemerinon since H.J. Thomson’s edition (London 1949), and includes a revised Latin text on the basis of J. Bergman’s critical edition (Leipzig 1926), which O’Daly prefers to M.P. Cunningham’s later, less critical edition (Turnhout 1966). O’Daly’s twelve essays on the Cathemerinon’s songs amount to the work’s first commentary in English. These essays make a handsome contribution to the philological and theological literature on Prudentius, and thereby, to a set of disputes refocused by Alan Cameron in last year’s The Last Pagans of Rome (Oxford 2011), in which a section is devoted to Prudentius.

            In 1976, Marion van Assendelft published a commentary in English on four of the Cathemerinon’s twelve hymns. The last monographs on the Cathemerinon were then published by Willy Evenpoel in Dutch, and Jean-Louis Charlet in French, in 1979 and 1982 respectively. Thirty years have passed. More recently, if more generally, there are signs of a wakening interest in Prudentius. In the English literature at least, this is the fourth title on Prudentius to appear since 2008—albeit the first on the Cathemerinon.

            Days Linked by Song is an unusually generous and perceptive work. It is preceded by O’Daly’s acclaimed study of The Poetry of Boethius and by his works, spanning several decades, on the Milanese Neo-Platonism of Ambrose and Augustine. O’Daly’s close acquaintance with Ambrose’s oeuvre is particularly evidenced in this new volume. Ambrose’s hymns and sermons provide us throughout with metrical, symbolical and doctrinal points of reference, while Ausonius, Paulinus of Nola and Augustine (inter alia) are also cited to good effect.

            Pagan flourishes abound in the Cathemerinon, but they are often formal or allusive—and thus, elusive. O’Daly registers the echoes and cross-echoes of Ennius (via Cicero), Lucretius and Phaedrus (the Latin fabulist), Ovid and Virgil, and decisively, Horace. Prudentius exhibits most of the “predilections of later Latin poetry”, which is still to say, the predilections of ‘secular’ poetry. (Thus Augustine, Prudentius’ contemporary, can casually dismiss the poets’ litteras saeculares in a sermon.) Nevertheless, the Cathemerinon is resolutely, stridently Christian. At dusk, Prudentius sings: “fixed to the cross (praefixa cruci) our hope is strong”. And throughout, it is an intensely Christian hope, a sense and typology of temporality, that this poet celebrates—whence, of course, the song-cycle’s title (which may well be Prudentius’). The kathêmerinôn is a “book of songs for the day”. …

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